Thursday, July 21, 2016

Silence is an Act of Complicity

Over the last three weeks, I have had the privilege of being part of two amazing math education communities—Park City Math Institute (PCMI) and Twitter Math Camp (TMC). At PCMI, we spent two hours a day in a class focused on doing math, an hour and a quarter a day in a class focused on reflecting on our teaching practice, and two hours a day collaboratively developing PD. At TMC, our days were similarly full with one two-hour session, two one-hour sessions, a keynote speaker, and two sets of 30 minutes of announcements/my favorites per day. In the unscheduled time in both programs, there were optional sessions, continued conversations, side projects, and an endless stream of interesting people to talk to who shared my passion for math education.

There were so many things I was excited about that I wished I had more hours in the day to get to them all. As a result, I put much of the rest of my life on hold. I spoke with very few people who I didn’t see in person, I put off responding to emails unless I absolutely had to, and I only briefly skimmed through facebook. I knew that this was an opportunity to immerse myself in thinking about math teaching in a way that was impossible for me to do at any other time during the year.  I was in my happy place.

Then, one morning at PCMI, I noticed that my facebook feed had blown up with news stories about the murder of Alton Sterling. And then the murder of Philando Castile. To my embarrassment, my first reaction was to just get off the internet. I was tired of the heartbreak, the anger, the helplessness, and all of the other emotions that I have come to associate with the racial injustice and violence in this country. I wanted to stay in my happy place. And at first, PCMI enabled me in the privilege of being able to do so. I kept doing math, I kept thinking and talking about teaching math, I kept admiring the beautiful mountains, and no one brought up what was happening outside of our bubble.

But as time went by the feelings that I had shoved off into a corner started to break out of their pen. I couldn’t keep them separate from everything else that I was thinking and doing. I noticed that other teachers at PCMI were posting things on facebook, though I had still not heard anyone bring it up in person. And I started to feel betrayed by PCMI leadership.  In their silence, in my silence, we were implying that the teaching of math can and should be separated from the social and cultural context in which it is done. We were saying that the lack of value placed on black lives had nothing to do with our focus on math and education here. So emboldened by the facebook posts of my fellow teachers and the status and relative power that I held in the PCMI community, I approached one of the program directors and asked if there could be a PCMI-sanctioned space for a conversation about the recent police brutality and what it meant for us as people and as teachers.

I was relieved when the response was yes, that this was important, that I wasn’t the only person who had brought this up, and that they were creating a space and time to start this conversation. That night, instead of hanging out with other teachers or reading a math education book from the stack I had accumulated, I connected back into the world outside of PCMI and tried to educate myself as much as possible about these most recent occurrences of institutional racism in our country. I was overwhelmed by all of the feelings that I had been trying to avoid and felt alone. But then PCMI gave me a gift—they sent out the email saying that for all who were interested, there would be a safe, facilitated space to talk about recent current events. This gave me the push that I needed to start a conversation with the people around me. It was easier for me to say “Hey, what do you think about that email?” as a conversation starter than “Hey, I’m feeling overwhelmed and confused and angry and alone.”

When two days later the larger group met to talk and grieve and share in these feelings with each other, I did a lot of listening. People shared what they had heard and felt about recent events, their own experiences with institutional racism in their lives both outside of and within the math and education communities, and their questions and strategies for addressing social justice in their school contexts. People authentically said what was on their mind and were vulnerable, with the goal not of coming out all on the same page, but of being able to talk in a room where people were willing to listen. This was only the very start of a conversation, with so much of the work left to be done. But I left with the knowledge that, at least for these people who had showed up to talk and listen, not only were they passionate and interested in deep conceptual understanding of matrices, multiple solution strategies, building on prior knowledge, and student engagement, but they also deeply cared about the lives of black and brown people and dismantling the systems of oppression that we are complicit in as teachers. These were the people who I could follow up with to continue the conversations we had started and whose ideas and support I could draw upon when I needed it.

A little bit less than a week later, I showed up at TMC. As primarily a lurker in the MTBoS, this was a community of people who I deeply respected and idolized, but with whom, for the most part, I did not have personal relationships with. In the morning session on the first day, I once again settled into my happy place. There were great norms, including “say the thing [that everyone is thinking but no one is saying or that only you are thinking]”, which led to a supportive working environment. I dug deep into structure and examining a routine to surface and leverage it, surrounded by people who were passionate and thoughtful about the work we were doing.

And then in the afternoon, Jose Luis Vilson, gave the keynote speech for the day. He pointed out how race was a relevant conversation that we weren’t having, shared the overlaps in the habits of mind for mathematical thinking and the ones needed to have tough conversations, and drew attention to the fact that he was one of the only black men in the room, which was one of the reasons why his wife had concerns about him coming to speak here. By the end of his talk, I was pretty emotional. I was so relieved that he had “said the thing” and that the organizers of TMC had intentionally made space for him to do so. Because this conversation had been started at the keynote, it was easier for me and other people to jump into follow-up conversations and reactions afterward.

Like PCMI, I knew that the TMC community was deeply passionate about math and pedagogy. But I didn’t know until that point that they understood that issues of race and oppression couldn’t be separated from that passion and that they cared enough to place value on those tough conversations. Now obviously one conversation and a couple of follow-ups are not the end of this work. They are only the very start. But this post actually isn’t to address what my next steps are, or the next steps for either of these communities.

Instead, I want to think about parallels between my feelings at PCMI and TMC and those of my students. How often is it that I am asking my students to check their concerns and feelings at the door so that they can “focus on the math”? What is it that I am expecting them to keep in a separate part of their brain, but is spilling over into everything that we do at school? What is it that I am telling kids that I don’t care about because I’m not talking about it?

Although it was only a small step, it meant so much to me that both TMC and PCMI said this is important and we’re going to talk about it. It demonstrated that as institutions they cared and it gave me the courage to be more connected and vulnerable than I otherwise would have been. As a teacher, by definition, I hold power in my school community. It is my responsibility, and my school’s responsibility, to make sure there is time and space for students to talk about and act upon the issues that they care about. Silence is an act of complicity.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading this ridiculously long post. And thanks for being at and contributing to those conversations.